I Got a Letter: Something You Might not Know about Empathy and Choice

I can’t remember the last time I received a paper letter in the mail but, sure enough, last week I had a small, two-page missive waiting for me at my office. Here is the text (it will make more sense to you if you’ve read my book but, if not, the character mentioned below is a woman who was raped and was discussed in a chapter on PTSD):

Dear Dr. Dobrenski,

I just finished reading your fascinating book, Crazy. With regard to your report about Deb, I agree with you. Just because a person dresses like a whore and acts like a whore does not give anyone the “right” to treat her like a whore (editor’s note: at no point do I refer to Deb as a whore). But, Deb describes in detail how she dressed specifically to be provocative, “in a way to make him want me,” and that “I should give him a taste of what he could have if he played his cards right.” “We flirted throughout the whole night. I knew where I was going, at least in terms of what he wanted.” Your response: “you made choices that were not sound. Those choices put you in a bad position.” Then Deb says, “He is solely responsible for the outcome that occurred.”

I beg to disagree. Your client was equally responsible and calling her behavior unsound choices in no way helps her to make better choices in the future. She “assigned the blame where it needed to be.” I doubt that because nowhere in that chapter was she made to understand the consequences of her behavior. In fact, in sounds like she just went along her merry way, perhaps having learned how to figure out which men were trustworthy.

Let’s look at this in another way. A person drives up to railroad tracks. Bells and whistles indicate that a train is approaching. However, he is certain that he can beat the train and attempts to drive across the tracks. He gets stuck on the tracks and is mowed down. So, who is responsible? According to what I gleaned from your book, the driver’s death was the fault of the conductor who was unable to stop on time. I don’t think so!

Sincerely,
XXXXXXXX

Let’s ignore the obvious errors in logic – for example, the idea that being raped and having PTSD aren’t consequences and that an accidental death on railroad tracks is the same as an active decision to stick your dick into a person who doesn’t want you to – and focus on a more important aspect of human nature. Namely, and this is clearly demonstrated in this woman’s letter, that when people know you’ve made choices, they become less empathic. This might be obvious to you. But you should also know that when people (and the research on this suggests this could be an American-specific phenomenon) even consider the notion of choice, their empathy decreases. If you don’t feel like reading the entire article, know that this lack of empathy extends beyond individuals to social programs. So if someone focuses on you making even the most benign choices, such as whether you pick up a fork or knife first, he/she is more likely to reject programs that create greater equality and benefits for society. He/she is also more likely to blame people for bringing bad things upon themselves, such as health problems or job loss.

Is it any wonder, then, that this woman was less than empathic to Deb? Of course not, she hyper-focused on the choices that Deb made, not the circumstances or the guy. The bizarre logical and analogies simply serve to support that position. The author of the study mentioned above, Krishna Savani, wonders if the extensive set of choices Americans have might have a cumulative negative impact by making people less sympathetic towards others and less concerned about the collective good. Not to end this point with a specific goal of making it political, but if you watched even a small fraction of this most recent election, I’m sure you’d agree that he’s right to consider that.

14 Responses to “I Got a Letter: Something You Might not Know about Empathy and Choice”

  1. Clutch says:

    I’m going to disagree with you. The mere fact that the victim here made a choice is not nearly as important as the choice made. If she had chosen to wear a pantsuit, I don’t think you would see less empathy from most people.

    I think a better comparison would be someone who gets shot wandering around south Detroit at 2 A.M. It’s still a shitty thing that happened, but people just don’t care as much when shitty things happen to someone engaging in high-risk behavior.

    I think that a lot of our outrage at crime comes from a selfish place. The random acts of violence bother us more because it makes us scared that it might happen to us. We care a lot less when we can point to a specific thing and say, “Well, I don’t do that, so I’m not at risk.”

    Just because I’m not surprised when I hear about a prostitute getting murdered does not mean I condone killing prostitutes.

  2. QoS says:

    What an utterly unsympathetic letter. I hope the person you described in your book, “Deb”, doesn’t ever see this.

    A bit of a tangent, but this is also quite repugnant: “Just because a person dresses like a whore and acts like a whore does not give anyone the “right” to treat her like a whore”. A sexworker (“whore”) doesn’t deserve to be raped any more than anyone else does. Being paid for a service doesn’t mean you are “asking” for someone to take your control away and abuse you, not are these things inherent in or equal to sexwork!

    Also, men everywhere must surely rejoyce (or not) in the notion that they any lack self control and that they are akin to a speeding train wrecking everything in their path. Sigh.

    You ask: “Is it any wonder, then, that this woman was less than empathic to Deb?”. Yes, I say – just as some of us are able to examine our cognitive biases and introspectively evaluate our feelings towards others, this person could have done the same. Bias Determinism.

  3. Cici says:

    “Also, men everywhere must surely rejoyce (or not) in the notion that they any lack self control and that they are akin to a speeding train wrecking everything in their path. Sigh.” Is it any wonder that it seems like a lot of men have issues dealing with life and feel like their lives are outside of their control?

    Thanks for posting, Dr. Rob! It’s nice to know that you’re still blogging and this feels like an extra-insightful post.

    Sometimes I feel like people in the America are brainwashed into thinking that they’ve got choice over their lives. Sure, some, but probably not to the extent that they think they do. Everything comes with a consequence.

  4. BL1Y says:

    Going to the whole meta-issue here, what causes people to have to correct others? Well, not that she is correcting you, but she at least thinks she is.

    What is it that makes us go from “Dr. Rob is wrong” to “and I have to tell him so”?

    We know from vast experience that even if correct, we’re unlikely to change someone’s mind, and that changing their mind is unlikely to have any effect. Pleading the virtues of your favorite food to a significant other might get her to try it, and if she likes it you stand to gain quite a bit by getting to eat it more.

    But what did this woman hope to accomplish?

    When we see a bum on the street asking for change, most of the time we just think “sucks to be you” and keep on walking. Why is it that we can’t have that same reaction when someone is wanting in intellect or opinion? “Ha, your opinions are wrong. Sucks to be you, I’m gonna keep on walking.”

  5. Jenna says:

    I’m still stuck on the fact someone sent a hand written letter. WTF??

  6. agun says:

    Sadly a lot of therapists hold this sort of view. One of my therapists told me that I should stop victimizing myself because even though it was not my fault that class mates bullied me, letting them do so by being a target was my fault and I should accept part of the responsibility.

    I dumped her soon after that.

  7. I agree with Dr. Dobrenski in that the “consequences” of her actions were pretty clear and severe: she was raped. End of story.

    However, I think it’s important to remember that the perspective in Crazy is of Dr. Dobrenski’s view as her(a) shrink. Not as a friend, or his personal views (not saying they are divergent, but that they could/may be). His job was to help his patient find her way back from being a rape “victim”, to being a productive, healing member of the planet, to the best of his ability. I don’t believe his responsibility to her was to whack her over the head with everything she did “wrong” or everything she “could have” done that would have stopped her from being raped. Actually, that seems fairly counterproductive to me and I’d guess that she was already a pro at doing just that without any help, at all.

    I think as “observers” our job is a little less clear cut and certainly less altruistic. We have the luxury of drawing our own conclusions with the limited information we were given and then voicing them as we see fit, without fear of damaging someone else…while sitting safely behind our computers, in our comfy little chairs located in our comfy little home offices. Or with our comfy little pens to write a two page letter, as the case may be. It’s very easy to judge her behavior, and for me, even easier to judge his.

    Let’s face it, we’re basically full of…bovine scatology, and we can be a cruel species. We do crazy shit to each other and I don’t think we’re ever going to all focus on what is best for the collective good…the opinions on that are simply too far apart and always have been. However, wouldn’t it be great if we all just woke up tomorrow and said, “I’m going to be a little kinder to myself and everyone around me today”? Just like that.

  8. Kendra says:

    I think the letter writer is ignoring an important component to Deb’s (and any rape victim’s) story. She did not want to have sex and she said so. There is a harmful misconception that men just can’t help themselves, that once they get started they can’t stop and therefore can’t be held responsible for their actions. Why is it up to the woman to control the man’s behavior? Aren’t we all ultimately responsible for our own actions? Sure, she went inside with the guy and had a few drinks, even started to fool around a bit. But, when she said stop and he went ahead and penetrated her anyway, then the culpability is all his and he consciously committed an act of rape. Just because you engage in one form of sexual activity does not mean you have to do any and everything the other party wants you to do. Is it logical to say that because a woman kisses a man, that she is responsible when he holds her down and puts her penis inside various parts of her body against her will? Well, she was wearing a skirt and she did kiss him….so what? how does that in any way make her responsible for the rape that he committed? It sickens me that people can’t understand the distinction.

    This is an especially important topic given the current news stories out of India. A woman is not responsible for her own rape just because she chooses to dress a certain way (many rape victims do not dress provocatively btw) or travel to a certain location. The blame for rape falls solely on the rapist. Stating that a person is victimized because of something they did or something they wore, only perpetuates the myth that men just can’t control themselves. Why are we shaming the victim and not the perpetrator?

  9. DrJ says:

    I was shocked by the lack of sympathy in this letter. Some important points have been made by other people already, but two are prominent to me. One was Dr. Rob’s role in the story as therapist, not friend or mere confidant. Deb needed needed that help to adjust her cognitions about what happened and to understand the responsibility and choices that were made on that fateful night.

    But reading that letter, I have the same thought banging around my mind: Deb *had* made her choice. In the book she says explicitly that she was looking to meet someone [and possibly no more], she wanted to look attractive and ‘wanted to be wanted’ by whomever she encountered [and possibly no more] and most importantly, she went out with the clear intention of NOT having sex. She talked about fooling around, making out, just giving a taste of what might (*might) be available on another date, but not that night.

    Even when she ended up in the guy’s apartment and they began to kiss, she never never never agreed to intercourse. That man took it and he had no right to do so.

    So why is it that what Deb chose is forgotten or irrelevant the moment her date decides he wants it all and wants it right now?

    One feeling remains for me when anger and indignation and shock at some people’s lack of sympathy have all washed away: sadness.

  10. di says:

    I’ve been comfortably sitting in another area of your site actively participating there – but it dawned on me that I forgot the reason that I found this site was because your wonderful article drew me in! I ventured but to realize that I’d been missing out.

    To realize you have books out is exciting! Dr. ROB I agree with you here. I know someone who was inappropriate with one of his step daughters and though he apparently stopped short of what might be defined as abuse, (I never asked exactly what happened) I know it was serious enough to disrupt their lives. While talking about it to me, he told me that his wife was emotionally unavailable for him and her daughter. I was appalled that after all the counseling, he still seemed to not be taking total responsibility. As the adult in the situation.
    I kind of saw the similarity here in your frustration with the letter writer not wrapping his head around the RAPE!
    I look forward to more of your insights as i wander around this site. Thank you for creating this blog! The place where I landed that you originated has been a refuge for so many since it began. As I am syre you have seen. You could write a great book on the subject if the

  11. di says:

    Sorry…typing on my phone.
    I just wanted to finish by saying…
    I am sure you have enough material to write a great book on the subject of First Loves! I’ve gone back to read your initial post and wish you were a Therapist in my home town! I love your insights!
    Funny, those of us who searched for a soft place to land all finally found this place all seem to love the interaction. Kind of like Group Therapy! Unlike other sites that just seem to want to talk at each other and tell their own story and move on. This site is different for some reason and I think it all started with you! Thank you Dr. ROB!

  12. Jordy says:

    I am the survivor of a sexual assault that happened three years ago. The perpetrator was a laborer doing renovations on a neighbours house. He was very persistent and I finally agreed to have a few beers with him on my deck. This invitation was in NO way sexual in nature.

    Not only was I very traumatized by this assault but the trauma was compounded by the police attitude, perceptions and subsequent behavior throughout the investigation. The lab results and evidence was completely botched and the police finally presented me with the most bizarre explanation. They felt a man must have ejaculated on my clothes at a public laundry mat in an attempt to ‘explain away’ the foreign semen found on my underwear! I had not been sexually active for at least 18 months prior to this assault occurred.
    The police stated that it was a ‘she says, he says’ situation and were not willing to pursue my case unless they were guaranteed a conviction! My statement was questioned repeatedly and I was left feeling that I was invisible and not to be believed.
    When are neanderthal, patriarchal and masochistic laws going to change in societal attitudes around women’s bodies and their right to agency?

  13. Elizabeth says:

    What about the fact they they were both drinking, and that Deb knew before agreeing to go back to his apartment that the guy was, in her words, “buzzed”? – And then agreeing to have yet another drink with him after knowing the neighborhood she was in and the condition her date was in?

    I think it’s unfair to pin it all on him when she was equally responsible. She didn’t make it clear at the beginning of the date that she didn’t want sex – in fact, she explained clearly that her intention was to make him think she DID want sex.

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